Friday, 22 July 2016

Pokemon Go: Ashes and Teeth


I have written about the future course of human evolution before. In the mid-1800s Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species raised a number of uncomfortable questions; if we are animals, and we evolved from the primordial ooze, what place is there for God? Perhaps He created the primordial ooze, but what if that evolved from something even more primordial? How could God have created us in his image, if we did not always look as we do today? Is God made of primordial ooze as well? Are we still subject to the forces of evolution, and if so, what will we look like in a million years?

H G Wells explored some of these questions in The Time Machine, and the first generation of 20th Century science fiction authors continued to wrestle with the implications of Darwin's theories, most notably Arthur C Clarke. In his 1953 novel Childhood's End humanity has reached the limits of its natural potential and is given an evolutionary push by aliens. The same basic theme was explored again in 1968, with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke's idea has always struck me as unsatisfying. If mankind has to rely on alien intervention to improve itself, how can we be masters of our own destiny? If the aliens mould us in their image, what will remain of humanity?


For many years these thoughts disturbed my sleep. If immortality is to have meaning there must be a continuity of human essence, otherwise our descendents are not a continuation of our species; they are instead simply a replacement. Are we just raw material for an alien sculptor? In Clarke’s fiction humanity is forged into immortality on an alien lathe, but I am mindful of Nigel Kneale’s final Quatermass serial, which explored the same idea at the end of the 1970s, in the depths of a deeply cynical age.

In Kneale's story an extraterrestrial force promises a new life in the stars, but it is a cruel lie. Instead of scooping up the chosen people and turning them into Gods, the aliens burn them as fuel, leaving behind ashes and teeth. The idea of false salvation from the stars was the basis of the 1962 Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man", and despite the success of 2001 Clarke's utopian worldview quickly became unfashionable. The New Age ancient astronaut movement of the 1970s sold a lot of books, but no-one took it seriously; it was hate-read as much as it was enjoyed, and by the 1980s UFO fans had aligned themselves with Kneale's dark vision. It is notable that the considerably more cynical Stanley Kubrick directed 2001 in the style of a horror film - as a child, the film scared me. 2001 is, fundamentally, a horror movie.

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Since 1968 The internet has transformed humanity. No longer are we disconnected individuals, doomed to die alone; I now have six hundred friends on Facebook and several thousand Twitter followers, each of whom hangs on my every word. The children of tomorrow will never be lonely, especially the girls. Nonetheless I occasionally have doubts. Is Facebook the final killer app that will make everyone happy, or is it just one step up the long ladder to a techno-social singularity? Perhaps not. Let it be remembered by future generations that humanity levelled up in July 2016, for this is the month of Pokémon Go, or just plain Pokemon Go if you want to ensure that your blog post is picked up by the majority of search engines.

I have not played Pokemon Go. I have only read about it. The media is full of poor-quality clickbait stories about Pokemon Go and it is impossible to avoid them. And also Taylor Swift, and Pippa Middleton's engagement ring. Does Taylor Swift play Pokemon Go? Where can I buy Prince George's sweater? Pokemon Go has swept the world so that even police officers and submarine crewmen play it. The astronauts on the International Space Station do not, at least not yet. Like and subscribe Pokemon Go like and subscribe.

And then it struck me. In 2001 humanity is challenged by an impossible object buried on the moon; when unearthed excavated and exposed to sunlight it beams a signal to Jupiter. In real life the space race was sparked off by a need to develop effective, accurate intercontinental missiles and satellite reconnaissance systems; in 2001 a mission to Jupiter is given top priority in order to investigate the monolith's signal. It seems to me that NASA is missing a trick. After landing men on the moon the agency seemed to lose its way, but a few little white lies here and there could soon fix that.

Imagine if it became known that a particular rare Pokemon could be found buried on the far side of the moon! Larry Ellison will be there in a flash, because billionaires like him are highly competitive and he would want to beat Jeff Bezos. Ellison is 71 years old and presumably hasn't got much longer to live; what does he have to look back on? Future generations won't care about the company he founded, Dell or whatever. They will instead respect the first man to unearth dig up the first Lunar Pokemon. Furthermore, as players of Battlefield or Modern Warfare will attest, there are legions of competitive Russian gamers out there - what if they beat us? We can't have that. Imagine a cryogenically-preserved Mewtwo resting in a chamber in the middle of Tsiolkovskiy; but why stop there? Imagine Psyduck paddling happily in the liquid atmosphere of Neptune, where the frozen methane soothes its headache; or imagine herds of Snorunt wandering the cracked plains of Pluto etc.


If I can imagine all of this, so can NASA, and it is only a matter of time before Pokemon Go rekindles our desire to explore the universe. There must be Pokemon on other planets, in other star systems, in other galaxies; the chances that they have evolved only on Earth are minuscule. Earth is just one planet of countless billions stretching through time and space, and I weep to think that we will never capture them all.

Our children might, and that is where my hope comes from. Not salvation from the stars, but instead salvation from ourselves, and from our desire to catch Pokemon. And perhaps on the far side of the Milky Way there are alien children who are also catching Pokemon, and one day we will meet in the middle of the galaxy and swap stories. I will not be there to see it, but it will happen. It must.

Sirmione, Italy